The biggest environmental issue is staring us in the face

by Tom Bell

Who’s connecting the dots on Spaceship Earth? Remember the dots of 9/11? They were all out there, yet the best minds of our government’s intelligence apparatus could not connect them. Too bad; a tragedy might have been averted.

The dots on Spaceship Earth are accumulating every day and represent a threat even greater than terrorism. It is called global warming, and it portends disaster far greater for far more people. Are we failing to take notice of them and ignoring the warning signals that could save us?

Most folks with good common sense look at the world, try to make sense of it and ask: What’s going on? The dots are there but between manipulative politicians, avaricious corporations and pseudo-scientists, the public is more than slightly perplexed. What are they to believe from the mixed signals they are receiving? Certainly, there is no leadership coming from the highest echelons of our government. Some lip service is given but nothing that deals with hard reality.

The reality is that our environment is changing all around us. All you have to do is look. In Wyoming, my favorite trout fishing holes when I was a kid more than 50 years ago are now filled with carp. The water has warmed, and the trout are leaving or dying. In Oregon, trout researchers have documented the movement of trout up to cooler waters at higher elevations.

The little pika -- rock rabbit or cony -- as some call them, found only in the higher elevations of the Rockies and in Asia, are losing out. Research is indicating that they can’t stand the heat. Evolved in the high, dry elevations, they aren’t adapting fast enough and there is no place for them to go.

In the tropics of Central America, researchers have found a shift of bird life. Birds that once thrived in the trees at lower elevations have moved to the mid-elevations; and birds that once flourished at mid-level are being forced by rising temperatures to the highest elevations. Those at the top have nowhere to go and are dying out. As in the case of the pikas, a living organism that has evolved in a particular ecosystem cannot readily and quickly adapt to the new conditions, even if it is only a few degrees rise in temperature.

How many of those subtle, and not so subtle, changes are affecting us? The record heat wave which scorched Europe in August 2003 killed an estimated 35,000 people. France alone suffered 14,802 fatalities.

As I sit here in central Wyoming, it seems a beautiful and peaceful place. But on close examination, a grim scenario is playing out. Just as climate-change scientists have predicted, there is an increase in insects and disease. West Nile virus was unheard of in the United States until 1999. In 2002, there were 4,165 cases of the disease and 284 deaths. As of Sept. 16, six people have died in Wyoming -- one in my town of Lander.

Drought is in its fourth year with no end in sight. To compound that problem, the Wind River glaciers that provide much of the late-season water in the streams are receding at an alarming rate. (So are most glaciers around the world.) Dry rivers and raging forest fires are expected to be a part of the future.

Ironically, Wyoming and the West’s vast carbon fuel supply of coal, oil and natural gas are contributing vast amounts of carbon dioxide to the greenhouse effect of global warming. In addition, the search for and the recovery of gas and oil is all but destroying many square miles of open lands that wild animals need to survive.

A study done by scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory earlier this year concluded that huge reductions in fossil-fuel carbon emissions will be required by the middle of this century. One of the authors, Atul Jain, a professor of atmospheric sciences, said, "To reduce carbon dioxide emissions and avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we must switch to alternative, carbon-free energy sources."

The Union of Concerned Scientists has said, "We believe that climate change represents the greatest environmental challenge of the 21st century. It is the one environmental issue that affects all others, one that casts a long shadow on the future of our planet." Let’s hope it’s not too late to pay attention.

Tom Bell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). A former wildlife biologist and rancher, he founded the newspaper in 1970, in Lander, Wyoming, where he lives today.

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